The best films of 2012 in review
We take our annual look back at the best movies of the year. By Lance Harris.
From Sam Mendes’ stunning reinvention of James Bond in Skyfall to Wes Anderson’s quirky look at young love in Moonrise Kingdom, 2012 has been a great year at the cinema. Here’s a rundown of some of the best films of the year.
(Note that the list is based only on films released to cinema in South Africa during 2012. It includes films that may have screened in 2011 or earlier elsewhere in the world and excludes titles that will not be released here by the end of the year.)
This year’s multiple Oscar winner is an endearing piece of nostalgia that captures faithfully the look and feel of the silent-era melodramas. Though frothy and sentimental, The Artist is charming and witty enough to just about stand up to the Oscar hype. Good as leads Jean Dujardin (also the director) and Bérénice Bejo were in their star turns in this film, they were outperformed by an impossibly cute Jack Russell named Uggie.
Beasts of the Southern Wild
The breakthrough American indie film of the year, Beasts of the Southern Wild, is low on budget but big on imagination and ambition. Working with a cast of amateur actors, first-time feature film director Benh Zeitlin weaves a moving tale about a feral scamp named Hushpuppy (brought to vivid life by child actor Quvenzhané Wallis) and her struggle to make peace with her father’s looming death. The film is as convincing in its depiction of the aurochs in Hushpuppy’s imagination as it is in its portrayal of a poor community living outside the New Orleans levee.
Bosses at an investment banking firm scramble for cover when they realise that the game is up for the company and the wider economy in Margin Call. The film is a nuanced look at the dynamics of greed in the testosterone-fuelled world of investment banking, carried by a strong cast and a bristly script that brings to mind David Mamet at his furious, foul-mouthed best. With production values that belie its low budget, Margin Call signals the arrival of a major new talent in first-time feature director JC Chandor.
If Casino Royale gave James Bond his Batman Begins-style rebirth, Skyfall broke him on the wheel in the same way as The Dark Knight did Batman. It takes Daniel Craig’s grizzled, wearied Bond on the darkest, most personal journey any Bond film has embarked on to date.
But director Sam Mendes also serves up some fantastic Bond action in the film’s set pieces, while Roger Deakins’ superb cinematography makes the film one of the very best looking of the year. Though the film flirts with some weighty themes for a Bond movie, there’s a self-deprecating humour underlying it all that stops it from becoming too serious and self-important.
Life of Pi
There are so many ways that a cinematic adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker-winning novel could’ve gone wrong, but the fable is in safe hands with Ang Lee. The film’s major triumph lies in its subtle use of 3D to deepen the terror and wonder of Pi’s perilous journey across the sea. It’s a gorgeous-looking film, lyrical and poetic.
Unknown teenage actor Suraj Sharma plays Pi with feeling and expression, immersing one in the tale the castaway weaves about his time at sea. But he is upstaged by Richard Parker, the tiger that shares his lifeboat. Richard Parker is one of the most remarkable CGI creations we have ever seen — every bit as memorable as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.
- Releases 21 December
Director Rian Johnson creates another film that playfully subverts its genre in Looper — a stylish science-fiction film with a droll take on the paradoxes of time travel. There’s suspenseful action, a touch of drama, and wry observation, all helping to freshen up the tired time travel tropes we know well from films such as Terminator and 12 Monkeys. Joseph Levitt-Gordon plays a young Bruce Willis, and does so convincingly.
Where Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises groans under the weight of its director’s pretensions, Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is a perfect popcorn movie — sleek, tonally confident, exciting and, often, very funny. Unlike this year’s Batman, The Avengers spend their time trading blows and banter with super villains rather than moping around the mansion like Howard Hughes.
In addition to its fantastic set piece moments, The Avengers sparks and crackles thanks to the chemistry of the big-name actors taking the roles of the iconic Marvel superheroes. Sure, it is little more than a well-designed rollercoaster, but it is one of the most enjoyable rides of the year.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Director Tomas Alfredson’s masterful adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy remains true to the murky morality and dense plotting of John Le Carre’s spy novel. Tinker Tailor is handsomely crafted film of exceptional quality with sharply observed period detail, and an oppressive atmosphere.
Gary Oldman’s low-key performance as George Smiley — the quick-witted yet unassuming spy who is the hero of many Le Carre novels — was nominated for an Oscar. It’s one of the best performances of the year, full of subtle shading and nuance.
- Releases 21 December
Wes Anderson’s blend of whimsy and dry humour is spellbinding in Moonrise Kingdom, which follows the blossoming romance of two young misfits living on the fictional island of New Penzance in New England. As is always the case with an Anderson film, Moonrise Kingdom is made with an attention to detail that is increasingly rare in today’s cinema — it is beautifully art-directed, wittily scripted, and immaculately shot.
But it also has a lot of heart and warmth under its mannered appearance. Newcomers Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman have a natural empathy as the two kids, while the likes of Bruce Willis, Frances McDormand, Bill Murray and Edward Norton have memorable supporting roles as the dysfunctional adults of New Penzance.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a dense, oblique and challenging film that has proven to be divisive among critics and audiences alike. I think it’s the 2012 film that is mostly likely to be remembered as a masterpiece years from now.
The film first grabbed attention for the obvious parallels between one of its lead characters and Scientology founder L Ron Hubbard. In reality, it is less a direct indictment of Scientology than it is an exploration of the dangers of dogma in general. The Master stays away from offering any glib answers of its own to the knotty questions it raises about master-disciple relationships, post-World War 2 America, personality cults, and religious devotion.
Anderson is on fire in The Master, which is as technically and stylistically assured as it is raw in emotion and deformed in structure. Daringly calculated to frustrate any desire in the audience for an easy resolution, The Master cements Anderson’s reputation as one of the most audacious directors at work today.
Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in a powerful performance as Lancaster Dodd, the leader of a cultish movement known as “The Cause”. His performance shows you both why you shouldn’t trust an oily narcissist like Dodd and why his charisma is so irresistible to some.
But even more remarkable is Joaquin Phoenix as Dodd’s hard-drinking, oversexed understudy — a navy sailor returning from World War 2 with what would today be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. Phoenix exposes his face and body to the harshest scrutiny, the camera turning a merciless gaze on his stooped figure, animalistic vigour and the birthmark on his lip. It’s a brave, blistering performance that holds nothing in reserve.
- Releases 21 December
Cabin in the Woods: Producer Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard affectionately spoof, reference and celebrate nearly any classic horror or slasher film you can think of in a fun-filled 90 minutes.
End of Watch: A well-scripted cop drama anchored by great performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña as two LAPD officers patrolling the meanest streets of Los Angeles.
Dredd: The Alex Garland-scripted Judge Dredd movie brings to mind John Carpenter at his best with its nasty B-movie sensibility, mordant wit and muscular storytelling.
Searching for Sugarman: The feel-good documentary about musician Rodriguez, who was big in South Africa and nowhere else, is equally successful as a musical biography and as an historical document.
The Skin I Live In: Pedro Almodóvar’s memorable film about a mad doctor’s quest to create synthetic skin is an elegant, ghoulish and disturbing meditation on loss, desire and selfhood.